Mastering Meditation

1. The Importance of the Union of Calm Abiding and Special Insight

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The Importance of the Union of Calm Abiding and Special Insight

IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE the state of a buddha, we must train in a path that unifies calm abiding and special insight and thereby become a buddha. We may be able to place our mind in equipoise until the end of the eon in a calm abiding that is devoid of the special insight that realizes selflessness. But by not seeing as incorrect the determined object of the apprehension of a self,17 this meditation will only become a cause for further cycling in saṃsāra, not a cause for liberation. Likewise, devoid of calm abiding, the wisdom that realizes selflessness cannot by itself do much to harm the ignorance that apprehends a self, the root of saṃsāra. Therefore, we definitely must rely on a meditation that is the unification of calm abiding and special insight. As the victor’s child Śāntideva has said in his Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds:

Know special insight well-conjoined

with calm abiding quells the taints.

Seek calm abiding at the start.18

[2] As I said, the root of our circling in saṃsāra since beginningless time is none other than the ignorance that apprehends a self. Thus, as an antidote to subdue this ignorance that apprehends a self, we must generate the wisdom that realizes emptiness. Furthermore, if we don’t have calm abiding, this wisdom that realizes emptiness cannot alone subdue ignorance; since we must mount the wisdom that realizes emptiness on the horse of calm 38abiding and thereby subdue confusion, we must meditate by unifying calm abiding and special insight.

As for “calm abiding,” because it is mainly (1) the pacification of the mind’s distraction toward external objects and (2) a stable abiding on a single object of observation, it is called “peaceful” or “calm abiding.” Within a secure factor of stability on the object of observation, one maintains not a loose but a firm manner of apprehension. If one maintains this tight manner of apprehension with an intense factor of clarity, it becomes the practice of calm abiding. Otherwise, without the factor of stability, calm abiding’s obstacle of excitement arises. Without the intense factor of clarity, laxity arises. Thus, for calm abiding, we definitely need to be free of these two faults. But that alone is not enough: we also need to be able to elicit the mental and physical bliss of pliancy that comes through the force of meditating free of these two faults.

[3] Well then, what is this thing called “eliciting the bliss of pliancy”? Having pacified the assumption of bad states of body and mind19 that make the body and mind unserviceable for virtue, one gains pliancy — the serviceability or ability to utilize the body and mind as much as one likes for virtue. If through that force comes a strong blissful experience, we have elicited bliss,20 and a meditative concentration supported by that special kind of bliss is called “calm abiding.”

As for calm abiding itself, it is a common practice of both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Thus a stable calm abiding does arise even in the continuum of non-Buddhists. Non-Buddhists meditate on calm abiding and actualize the four dhyāna absorptions and the four formless absorptions.21 39When they achieve the absorption of the peak of cyclic existence,22 they think, “I’ve achieved liberation!” In each meditative session, they may be able to stay in absorption for many hundreds of thousands of years, or even until the end of the eon. However, without the support of the thought of definite emergence,23 their meditation does not become a cause of liberation. For example, when our teacher (Buddha) came to this world, a forder24 named Udraka Rāmaputra, on achieving the absorption of the peak of cyclic existence, thought “Now I have achieved liberation!” and placed his mind in the equipoise of calm abiding for a long time. [4] Upon arising from his 40absorption and seeing a rat gnawing on his dreadlock, he became angry, causing his absorption to degenerate. He generated the wrong view, thinking, “There is no liberation!” and was subsequently born in hell.25

Also, some forders place their minds in absorption into calm abiding and stay until the end of the eon. By enjoying the bliss of absorption and staying for a long time in that state, they exhaust all of the merit they previously accumulated. Although at first they had thought, “I’ve achieved liberation!” later when they arise from concentration and see with clairvoyance that they will again be born in saṃsāra by the force of karma and afflictions, they generate the wrong view, thinking, “There is no liberation!” By the force of that they are born in the unfortunate migrations. Because this is a common occurrence, we can conclude that in order to achieve our ultimate aim, calm abiding alone is of no benefit.


When we are practicing to actualize calm abiding, we must do so in conjunction with generating a pure mind of refuge in our continuum. That refuge in turn must be based upon (1) fear of all of the suffering of cyclic existence and (2) belief that one’s lama and the Three Jewels have the power to save us from this suffering. If we actualize calm abiding in conjunction with this mind of refuge, it will become a practice of Buddhadharma. If we do not aim merely for the next life but conjoin our practice of calm abiding with a thought of definite emergence that sees all the wonders of saṃsāra as like a pit of fire and wishes to attain liberation from that, it will become a cause for liberation. [5] If we conjoin it with bodhicitta, thinking, “For the 41purpose of all mother sentient beings, I must achieve the state of a perfectly completed buddha. For that reason, I am actualizing calm abiding,” it will become a cause of complete buddhahood.

The difficulty we face in generating the realization of calm abiding in our continuum is not like that of non-Buddhists, who meditate on calm abiding in order to progressively actualize the four dhyānas and four formless absorptions.26 Because our mind is under the power of afflictions, we tend to recall all sorts of useless, meaningless things, so whatever we meditate on does not became a path to liberation, and we do not make great strides. If and when we achieve calm abiding, we can use that as the mental basis27 for meditating on death and impermanence, bodhicitta, the path that realizes naturelessness, and so forth. Then it will be easy to generate in our continuum a realization of whatever we meditate on, we will make great strides on the path, we will swiftly achieve yogic accomplishments, and so forth. In light of such a great difference, we meditate on calm abiding for that reason and not in the non-Buddhist manner described above.

Without calm abiding, we will be unable to generate clairvoyance, bodhicitta, the paths of accumulation, preparation, seeing, and meditation,28 and so forth. [6] If we have calm abiding, we will quickly generate them, so we 42must meditate on calm abiding. If we achieve calm abiding, we will achieve control over our own mind.

Jé Tsongkhapa said,

King concentration, mind control.

When placed, immobile mountain lord.

When sent, it meets all wholesome things.

Prompts useful bliss of body, mind.29

At the moment, because we have not gained control over our mind, we are under the control of the afflictions. If someone achieves calm abiding, he achieves control over his mind, and because such a person can control his mind such that it stays wherever he places it, Tsongkhapa said, “King concentration, mind control.” That is, calm abiding is like a king who controls the mind. Tsongkhapa continued, “When placed, immobile mountain lord.” That is, whatever object of observation you place your mind on, like the lord of mountains it remains firmly without moving. For example, if you place it on a thought such as “May I achieve buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings,” you can stay on that thought for a long period of time. Also, if you spread out your focus — that is, send your mind to various objects — whatever virtuous object you place your mind on, your calm abiding will engage just that object. [7] Thus, Tsongkhapa then said, “When sent, it meets all wholesome things.” He continues, “Prompts useful bliss of body, mind.” Having achieved calm abiding, if you meditate or engage in any other virtuous activity, your physical and mental bliss will only increase; weariness and fatigue will not arise. If you achieve calm abiding, such abilities will come.

As I said before, no matter how much you meditate on calm abiding alone, you will be unable to cut the root of cyclic existence and thus will not be liberated from saṃsāra. But if on top of having calm abiding, you are able to generate the special insight that realizes emptiness, by unifying those two you will achieve liberation from saṃsāra.



You might wonder, “Well then, what is this thing called ‘special insight’?”

You analyze an object from within the space of equipoise in calm abiding. A wisdom conjoined with bliss elicited by the force of such analysis is called “special insight.” If you achieve a stable calm abiding, from the space of equipoise in calm abiding you will be able to perform analysis with a wisdom that individually investigates objects. When we haven’t attained a stable calm abiding, if we engage in analysis, the factor of stability degenerates. [8] If our calm abiding achieves a secure factor of mental stability, it does not degenerate when we engage in analysis. For example, if under a deep body of water, fish swim back and forth, they are unable to disturb the surface. Likewise, from a space of secure mental settling on an observed object, although we analyze, the intensity of our factor of clarity only becomes stronger, and through the force of that we generate an even greater bliss than before. Bliss elicited by the power of analysis is the bliss of special insight. Bliss at the time of mere calm abiding is bliss born through the force of the stability factor.30

Calm abiding is an indispensable tool. From the point of view of sūtra, there are the five paths and ten grounds, and during mantric practice there are realizations of the path of completion.31 Without calm abiding we will be unable to correctly generate any of these. If we are to actualize calm abiding, we must actualize it in conjunction with the minds of refuge, renunciation, and bodhicitta. If we are able (1) to generate bodhicitta and a calm abiding that abides stably on an observed object and (2) to analyze, from the space of calm abiding, the meaning of emptiness and thus be able to generate the special insight that realizes emptiness, then on the basis of a path that unifies those two — calm abiding and special insight — the attainments of liberation and the state of buddhahood will arise. [9] For example, if at nighttime there is a fresco on the wall in a house, to view that painting we need a bright torch. That torch also must not be disturbed by the wind. If 44the wind disturbs the torch, we will be unable to see the painting clearly, and even if there is no wind, if the torch is not bright, we will likewise be unable to see the painting well. Special insight is like the bright torch, and calm abiding that is a secure mental settling on an observed object is like being unmoved by the wind.

This manner of actualizing calm abiding is explained in many great texts like protector Maitreya’s Five Religious Treatises,32 Ārya Asaṅga’s Five Treatises on the Grounds,33 and so forth. Jé the Great [Tsongkhapa] unerringly delineated the meaning of those texts. Likewise, the holy lamas like His Holiness the Fifth Dalai Lama, Paṇchen Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen, Paṇchen Losang Yeshé, and so forth took those great texts as a basis and clarified their meaning.34 The very essence of all of those is what I am explaining now.


To actualize calm abiding, stable recollection and introspection are very important prerequisites. For example, we may recognize that when people with stable recollection and introspection practice for calm abiding, they achieve it easily, while those without stable recollection and introspection have a hard time actualizing it when they practice.


17. The apprehension of a self observes an existent object — the person — and apprehends it in an incorrect way — as existing inherently. Thus the “determined” or “apprehended” object, the inherently existent self, is incorrect.

18. Śāntideva, Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds, 8.4. For an English translation of this text, see Śāntideva 1997.

19. Skt. (kāyacitta)dauṣṭhulya; Tib. lus sems kyi gnas ngan len. These “bad states of body and mind” are said to be residual effects of conditioning to afflictions, even though they themselves are not afflictions. Bad states of body might include tightness and poor posture, and bad states of mind might include mental heaviness and lack of clarity.

20. Note that “bliss” (Skt. sukha; Tib. bde ba) here does not literally mean, as it usually does, a pleasant sensation, which has a very specific meaning in Buddhist psychology. Here the term “bliss” is used more loosely. “Bliss of pliancy” is simply the ease and freedom from worry that comes with freedom from bad states of body and mind. In very deep states of concentration (such as the fourth dhyāna), as well as in times of making effort to achieve more advanced concentration, one may experience a neutral rather than a pleasant sensation, but the “bliss of pliancy” is still present.

21. These are progressively more refined states of concentration that one can achieve on the basis of calm abiding. The “four dhyāna absorptions” are simply the “first, second, third, and fourth dhyānas.” The first one is free of desire for sense pleasures, the second is free of any gross conceptual motivation, the third is free of joy — which the meditator experiences as an unsettling of mind — and the fourth is free of bliss, which again is experienced as a hamper to concentration. The “four formless absorptions” are further refinements of concentration. Unlike the four dhyānas, they are distinguished not by progressively subtler mental factors but by progressively subtler objects of concentration. During the absorption of the sphere of limitless space, the meditator no longer perceives forms but only a vast vacuity. During the absorption of the sphere of limitless consciousness, he no longer experiences space but only pervasive consciousness. During the absorption of nothing at all, there is the experience as though nothing at all is appearing to the mind. During the absorption of neither discrimination nor nondiscrimination, gross discrimination is suspended, and only a very subtle level of discriminating awareness remains.

The Buddha explained that there is a danger that those who achieve these levels of concentration will mistakenly believe that they are liberated from saṃsāra because they will no longer experience manifest suffering. However, afflictions still lurk in the depths of the mind, and they will eventually become manifest and cause the dhyāna to decline. Nevertheless, the Buddha did strongly encourage his followers to make use of the dhyānas, especially the fourth one, for meditating on the stages of the path. In the Tibetan tradition, a practitioner of tantra intentionally forsakes attaining them (see introduction).

22. This is an alternative name for the absorption of neither discrimination nor nondiscrimination. It is called “peak of cyclic existence” because it is the most refined state of consciousness still included within cyclic existence.

23. Skt. *niḥsaraṇa(citta); Tib. nges ’byung gi bsam pa. This term, which literally means “the thought of definite emergence,” is often translated as “renunciation.” In this context, “definite emergence” means liberation from saṃsāra, and “the thought” means the strong intention to achieve definite emergence. In other words, this mind observes liberation and wishes to achieve it. “Renunciation,” on the other hand, though a related mind, would observe objects of attachment and wish to abstain from pursuing them. “Thought of definite emergence” emphasizes the positive intention to achieve something, whereas “renunciation” emphasizes the corresponding negative intention to give something up.

24. “Forder” (Skt. tīrthika; Tib. mu stegs pa) is a common way to refer to non-Buddhist religious practitioners. Rather than being derogatory, this epithet is actually meant to be encouraging. It implies that these practitioners are making efforts to cross the stream of cyclic existence and reach nirvāṇa, even if they are not on exactly the right path according to the Buddhist understanding.

25. Phabongkha Rinpoché mentions this story in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand (Pabongka 1991, 675). Udraka Rāmaputra was also the name of one of the two teachers that Prince Siddhārtha met before he became the Buddha. According to the sūtras, the Rāmaputra who taught the Buddha died with his meditative stabilization intact and was reborn in the formless realm. Geshé Ngawang Thokmé suggests that the Rāmaputra referred to here, whose meditative stabilization declined, was a student of the one who taught the Buddha. It was a common practice in ancient India for students to take the name of their teacher.

Certain sūtras, such as the perfection of wisdom sūtras, describe how practitioners sometimes achieve deep states of concentration and mistake these states for liberation. Although they may as a result experience rebirth in a peaceful higher realm, when the state eventually exhausts itself, they lose faith in the possibility of liberation, and their subsequent anger and frustration can be strong enough to cast them into a hell realm.

26. The point Rinpoché seems to be making here is that although Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike undergo hardship to attain calm abiding, they do so for different reasons. The non-Buddhist does so merely to attain the dhyānas and formless absorptions, considering the attainment of one of these to constitute liberation, while the Buddhist does so to abandon the root of afflictions.

27. Skt. *cittāśraya; Tib. sems rten. “Using calm abiding as a mental basis” does not mean that on the one hand there is calm abiding while another mind meditates on impermanence. Rather, it means that the mind meditating on impermanence is itself in the nature of calm abiding.

28. The path to buddhahood is marked by five stages. During the first stage, the “path of accumulation,” a practitioner mainly focuses on learning and contemplation. During the next stage, the “path of preparation,” one prepares for a direct realization of emptiness by focusing mainly on meditation, gradually diminishing the dualistic appearance of emptiness in meditative equipoise. Finally, on the “path of seeing,” one “breaks through,” experiencing emptiness directly, unmediated by a meaning-generality. During the “path of meditation,” one cultivates this direct experience of emptiness, continuing to accumulate merit to enhance its force. At the end of this path, one achieves the “path of no-more-learning,” or complete buddhahood. Although there is some controversy over whether one can enter the path of accumulation before achieving calm abiding, all traditional texts are clear that one would need to achieve it soon thereafter and that it would be an absolute necessity for the latter four paths.

29. Tsongkhapa, Song of Experience, v. 19. This text is often called the condensed lamrim because it is Tsongkhapa’s shortest exposition of the stages of the path. For a translation, see Tenzin Gyatso 2002.

30. The point here is that before achieving special insight, using calm abiding to engage in analysis causes the stability of mind to temporarily waver. When one achieves special insight, then engaging in analysis not only does not harm concentration, but it actually enhances it.

31. The “five paths” are explained in note 9 above. The “ten grounds” are further subdivisions of the fourth path, the “path of meditation”: ten stages marked by progressively greater realization and powers of mind. The “realizations of the path of completion” are the isolation of body, isolation of speech, isolation of mind, illusory body, clear light, and unification (see introduction).

32. These are (1) Ornament for Clear Realization (Skt. Abhisamayālaṃkāra; Tib. Mngon par rtogs pa’i rgyan), (2) Ornament for the Mahāyāna Sūtras (Skt. Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra; Tib. Theg pa chen po mdo sde’i rgyan), (3) Differentiating the Middle from Extremes (Skt. Madhyāntavibhāga; Tib. Dbus dang mtha’ rnam par ’byed pa), (4) Distinguishing Dharma and Dharmatā (Skt. Dharmadharmatāvibhaṅga; Tib. Chos dang chos nyid rnam par ’byed pa), and (5) Sublime Continuum (Skt. Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra; Tib. Theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma’i bstan bcos). Various translations are available: for example, (1) Brunnhölzl 2010, (2) Maitreya 2014, (3) Maitreya 2006, (4) Maitreya 2004, and (5) Maitreya 2000.

Ornament for the Mahāyāna Sūtras explains the practice of calm abiding in relation to the nine mental settlings, while Differentiating the Middle from Extremes explains it in terms of the five faults and eight mental applications.

33. These are (1) Grounds of Yogic Practice (Skt. Yogācārabhūmi[śāstra]; Tib. Rnal ’byor spyod pa’i sa [or alternatively, Skt. Maulī Bhūmiḥ; Tib. Sa’i dngos gzhi]), (2) Compendium of Grounds (Skt. Vastusaṃgrahaṇī; Tib. Sa gzhi bsdu ba), (3) Compendium of Enumeration (Skt. Paryāyasaṃgrahaṇī; Tib. Rnam grangs bsdu ba), (4) Compendium of Doors of Explanation (Skt. *Vivaraṇasaṃgrahaṇī / *Vyākhyā(na)saṃgrahaṇī; Tib. Rnam par bshad pa’i sgo bsdu ba), and (5) Compendium of Ascertainments (Skt. Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī; Tib. Gtan la dbab pa bsdu ba). Part of the first is available in translation in Ārya Asaṅga 2016.

34. These authors all composed important lamrim (stages of the path) texts. These texts are not direct commentaries on Maitreya’s and Asaṅga’s texts, but they elucidate the central themes. These texts are the following:

1.By Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Tib. Byang chub kyi lam rim chen mo) (Tsongkhapa 2000). Tsongkhapa also composed a Middle-Length Stages of the Path (Tib. Byang chub lam rim bring ’ba) (Tsongkhapa 2012).

2.By Gyalwang Ngawang Losang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama, Sacred Words of Mañjuśrī (Tib. ’Jam dpal zhal lung). A partial translation is available at

3.By Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen, the Fourth Paṇchen Lama, The Easy Path to All-Knowing (Tib. Thams cad mkhyen par bgrod pa’i bde lam) (First Paṇchen Lama 2013).

4.By the Fifth Paṇchen Lama, Losang Yeshé, The Swift Path to All-Knowing (Tib. Thams cad mkhyen par bgrod pa’i myur lam). A partial translation is available at

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